The Poet
Visits India

He was now taking trains to places where there were no airports into jungles and over the flooded state of Orissa, in the general direction of Calcutta. Everywhere he had been he carried the large cardboard photo of Walt Whitman, bearded and mysterious-eyed, a Hindu if there ever was one. One night as he sat in his first-class wooden stall, like the inside of a red packing case, he decided to say goodbye to Walt and opened the window of his cabin and let the picture slide out into the dark jungle. He was certain it would end up in a temple, where it would be set up in style among swimming carvings. Worshippers would lay rice and fruit and garlands of dense-smelling flowers in front of it, and the poet of Camden would be very pleased with his passage to India.

In Calcutta he was met by a Hindu goddess in a blue sari which exposed her midriff and outlined her liberal bosom and buttocks. She informed the poet in British English that she was to take charge of him, see him to his hotel and his lectures, conduct him on sight-seeing tours, introduce him to poets and entertain him. Jesus, thought the poet. But somehow, driving into the city through the staggering slums she mentioned to him, apropos of nothing, that she was a Christian. The poet didn't know how to field that one and wondered if the announcement was some kind of admonition. Or it could even be a proposal of some kind. India was turning his mind to mush and was beginning to resemble one of those mountainous temple sculptures where the holy and the erotic climbed all over each other into the sky.

Well, if he had to have a watchdog, this beautiful blue Hindu Christian would be just fine. He told her that he was looking forward to visiting Dakshineshwar, that he was practically a disciple of Ramakrishna, that an American convert had sent him Sri Ramakrishna's bible, if you could call it that, and that he could understand India better for having read him. She gave him a neutral smile and he noticed something about her mouth, which was forbidding and would never be a target for a kiss, not his anyway.

She was a marvel of companionship at that, and would stay with him for hours in his hotel room sipping tea or lemonade while he laced his tea with Dixie Belle gin, which he bought in the bar and which had the horrible aftertaste of fusel oil.

Why she accompanied him to the Hindu temple where Ramakrishna had held forth he never knew. Of course it was her assignment and she stuck to him like glue. He would rather have been alone on the banks of the Hooghly, which Kipling had described as a river of filth, the river into which Ramakrishna had waded to his drowning. They took a taxi --- the poet always took taxis --- and got out in a large stony courtyard where clusters of beggars eyed them silently and without moving. Better to wait until they emerge from the shrine, in a giving mood.

The spoiled rice, the rotting fruit, the browning flowers were piled at the feet of the gods and goddesses and monsters, and the poet stayed longest under the blank and hideous Kali with her necklace of skulls, in one of her four hands holding a severed human head. She had three eyes, she stood on Siva, who lies supine on the thousand-petaled silver lotus. He would write a poem about it. Kali was the saint's darling. "If you compare that Mother with the Christian Mother of God," the poet said to his companion, "you can see that the Indians have more imagination."

"A rather bloody imagination, don't you think?" she answered him.

"But Ramakrishna was a man of peace, at least as much as Jesus, or more so. He had been a Moslem, he had been a Christian, he wanted to unify all the religions so they would stop killing each other off. Don't you know that the fundamental basis of war is religion? Marx was a surface-skater. All he could think of was goods and services. He even thought you could erase religions with a stroke of the pen. You can't erase religion because man is half-god, half-animal. There's your god-animal," he said, pointing to the black basalt Kali. "That's no sickly Raphael sugar-coated valentine. That's a killer."

"You've read too much Hemingway," said the Hindu Christian.

When they were passing back to the courtyard she said, "You must not give the beggars any money or even make the suggestion of a gesture," and he said nothing. They moved toward the taxi which he had told to wait as the clusters of men, women and children moved toward them. He dug into his pocket and pulled out a handful of what he felt were worthless annas made of cheap alloys. One of them knocked his hand up and the coins flew everywhere. He pulled out more coins and the same thing happened. And now the Donnybrook, as the Hindus rolled in the dust and mud puddles fighting each other over the annas, screaming and punching. They made their way to the cab and forced their way in, hands thrusting through the windows and he dug out more coins and even rupees, while the woman sat beside him stony-faced. Driving back, he turned to her and said, "One of Ramakrishna's gems was his answer to a disciple who asked him why, if God was so benevolent and loving, there was so much evil in the world. And Ramakrishna laughed, he was always laughing in these sessions and answered, To thicken the plot."

At the hotel the American said he wanted to rest before his lecture and he went to his room quaking. He stared out of his window onto an endless street with iron overhangs fronting the shops. Under these awnings families lived, people were born there on the sidewalks, grew up, married, died there. He had been told that some of these people would never see the inside of a house as long as they lived. They were sidewalk people. In the early morning he would see them move from the awning shelter to the street with their begging bowls and squat down, projecting their bowls to passersby. They were clean, they were immaculate, and they washed and bathed under the street-corner tap, modestly somehow, with no show of limbs. Some of them were mutilates whose arms had been taken off deliberately, at birth, to make them members of the begging caste. Many of the women wore nose rings, a small spot of gold or two or three hanging down from a nostril. It was their wealth.

He saw old women working like drayhorses, four of them pushing a grand piano up a hill, the cords standing out on their black necks and glistening with sweat. Elegant rectilinear modem buildings were going up, covered with a scabrous, crooked scaffolding of bamboo, and hundreds of workers filing up and down ramps like an ant army. He was told that there were a hundred and fifty thousand prostitutes in Calcutta, that suttee was still practiced, that nobody could break the caste system.

Visiting a professor's house he saw a beautiful housemaid, a harijan, who fled at the sight of him as if he had been a monster. She was an untouchable and would eat in a comer with her face to the wall. The poet thought bitterly, what had Gandhi done but gotten himself killed. He couldn't wait to get out of this hell. Simultaneously he felt a welling up of love and wonder at the teeming horror and intensity of it all, everything living and crawling and procreating. It was the primal ooze, pure spontaneous generation, the life-in-death of the oldest civilization, the meaning of the wheel of life from which there was no escape...

The watchful Hindu-Christian told him that he needed a secretary and said she would get him one. She sent a young girl who took shorthand expertly and typed his notes of rejection or encouragement or, rarely, acceptance. Like a true Yank he asked her why she didn't go to America. Her answer shouldn't have surprised him. In American they will think I am a Negro.

On his last day he visited a poet and his wife at their house, a modest bungalow hidden behind bushes of jasmine. While they talked poetry, birds flew in and out of the living room, to the visitor's astonishment. They had actually nested in a bookcase, with the consent of the owners of course, who told him to peek at the chicks. Such a touch almost compensated for the horrors. Besides, this was a good poet, and the two discussed which of his poems he would print in the India number.

He took leave of his guide, who would have accompanied him on the rest of the trip if he had wanted. It was evidently part of her job and Uncle Sam would pay for her. But he decided not to ask.

He went to Poona, he went to Bangalore, to Pondicherry which has its own special vultures. Vultures are a necessity in an overpopulated country. A delicate Parsee woman in one of the cities pointed out a very tall structure which she said was the Tower of Silence --- quite an irony, the poet thought, since they laid their dead on top for the vultures to eat. He liked vultures and thought them superior to most beautiful birds, looking like broken umbrellas or prime ministers.

He wanted to make a side trip to Goa but was not allowed. Thousands of Gandhians were marching on Goa to try by Gandhian means to force out the Portuguese after four hundred years of colonial rule at its vilest. It was the last stronghold of the barbarians, a Hindu professor put it. The poet knew that if he went he would end up with the marchers and have his picture in all the Indian newspapers, and not only Indian. No politics echoed in the poet's head, just lectures on Walt Whitman, the father of political and homosexual poetry in America. The State Department must have struggled Whitman like a hot coal before they decided to celebrate the birthday of his book.

--- from Reports of My Death
©1990 Karl Shapiro

Go Home     Subscribe to RALPH     Go Up